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Fact-checking opening statements from President Trump’s legal team

President Donald Trump’s legal team kicked off their opening arguments in the Senate impeachment trial Saturday morning. In defending the President, Deputy White House Counsel Mike Purpura said the case is based on “six key facts that have not and will not change.”

Here’s a break-down of these six “facts” and other claims made by Trump’s legal team Saturday.

The transcript doesn’t show a quid pro quo

Purpura said “the transcript shows that the President did not condition either security assistance or a meeting on anything. The paused security assistance funds aren’t even mentioned on the call.”

Facts First: While no specific conditions for a quid pro quo were mentioned on the call, the exchange Trump had with Zelenksy raised eyebrows among some officials who listened to the phone conversation — because the US was withholding military aid from Ukraine at the time.

In the memo of the call, Trump discusses US aid to Ukraine and how the relationship between the two countries was “not reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very very good to Ukraine.” He then says he would like Zelensky “to do us a favor though.” Trump goes on to discusses a conspiracy theory related to the 2016 election and later, a potential Ukrainian investigation into the Bidens.

The Trump administration has argued that the military aid was entirely separate and being held because of concerns about corruption in Ukraine. Purpura’s point holds, as the transcript does not specifically outline an exchange of one for another, but Democrats argue a quid pro quo was implicit given Ukraine’s dependence on the US.

Zelensky and Ukrainian officials say there was no pressure

Purpura said “President Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials have repeatedly said there was no quid pro quo or no pressure on them to review anything.”

Facts First: Ukraine’s president and foreign minister have made comments that bolster Trump’s argument that he did not pressure Ukraine to investigate his opponents in order to receive US military aid.

President Zelensky in particular has said, on several occasions, that he felt no pressure from Trump to investigate the Bidens or the 2016 election. In a joint press conference with Trump in late September, after the memo of the phone call was released by the White House, Zelensky first said “nobody pushed me” while Trump was also saying “there was no pressure.”

During an interview with Time magazine, Zelensky was asked to “clarify this issue of quid pro quo.” “Look, I never talked to the President from the position of a quid pro quo. That’s not my thing,” Zelensky said.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, has also said Trump’s July phone call with Zelensky was “friendly” and that “I think there was no pressure.”

Republicans have used these comments to support their argument that the President didn’t pressure Zelensky into doing anything he didn’t want to do. However, Democrats have claimed Zelensky’s assertions may indicate the opposite.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler described Zelensky’s situation as “he has a gun to his head. The gun is the fact that the President of the United States, upon whom he depends for military aid, for help in many different ways, has shown himself willing to withhold that aid based on what he says, based on what he’s willing to play along with the President for his own personal political goals.”

Zelensky and his team also discussed the pressure they were already feeling to publicly launch investigations that would benefit Trump, according to a source familiar with discussions at the meeting which occurred two weeks after Zelensky and Trump spoke for the first time in April.

Ukraine did not know about the hold on military aid

Purpura claimed Ukraine did not know military aid was being withheld at the time of the phone call, so there could effectively be no quid pro quo between the parties. “President Zelensky and high-ranking Ukrainian officials did not even know,” Purpura argued, “the security assistance was paused until the end of August, over a month after the July 25 call.”

Facts First: It’s unclear when exactly top Ukrainian government officials knew that nearly $400 million in military and security aid was being withheld. But there is evidence that some of them suspected there was an issue with the funding as early as July 25, the same day as President Trump’s phone call with Zelensky.

According to testimony from Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, some members of her staff told her that they had received queries about the aid from Ukrainian officials on July 25.

Cooper did not, however, know if the Ukrainian officials were aware of a hold on the aid or were just checking in.

The New York Times reported that, according to Olena Zerkal, an ex-top official in Kiev, members of the Ukrainian government knew the aid was being held up at some point in late July, but Zerkal could not recall the exact date.

As Purpura noted, the withholding of military aid was not brought up in meetings between Ukraine and US officials. It wasn’t until Politico reported in late August that Trump was withholding military aid to Ukraine that top Zelensky adviser, Andrey Yermak, texted Kurt Volker, Trump’s special envoy for Ukraine, with a link to the article and a message “we need to talk.”

This could be due to the unusual process of how the aid was withheld.

The Office of Management and Budget has declined to turn over documents to investigators related to the withholding of the aid.

No witness testified the President acknowledged

The fourth key fact Purpura claimed was that “not a single witness testified that the President himself said that there was any connection between any investigations and security assistance, a presidential meeting or anything else.”

Facts First: It’s true witnesses did not testify the President said anything about a quid pro quo, but other administration officials have testified to the existence of one.

Gordon Sondland, the Trump-appointed US Ambassador to the European Union, made things even more explicit during his public testimony in November before the House Intelligence Committee.

“I know that members of this committee frequently frame these complicated issues in the form of a simple question,” Sondland said. “Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney confirmed the existence of a quid pro quo but hours later denied he had admitted such a thing.

Ukraine never announced an investigation into Biden or the 2016 election

Aiming to make the case that Trump did not engage in a quid pro quo because the Ukrainians got what they wanted without ever announcing an investigation into the 2016 election or the Bidens, Purpura argued “a presidential meeting took place on September 25 without the Ukrainian government announcing any investigations.”

Facts First: This is misleading. While an announcement of investigations never took place, it was planned and discussed between representatives of both the US and Ukraine. The plan was only halted after the withheld aid was released.

In November, the New York Times reported that Ukrainian President Zelensky had planned to announce an investigation into Trump’s political rivals during a September interview on CNN. The Ukrainians canceled the interview and announcement once Trump released the promised security aid on September 12.

During the July 25 call, Trump also suggested his personal attorney, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, be a point of contact, given that Giuliani had previously lobbied Ukraine to investigate Biden’s call in 2016 to remove the country’s top prosecutor.

During the conversation, Zelensky appeared to agree with the President’s request. Zelensky said, “The issue of the investigation of the case is actually the issue of making sure to restore the honesty so we will take care of that and will work on the investigation of the case.”

Trump’s track record on support for Ukraine

Purpura argued that Trump has “been a better friend and stronger supporter of Ukraine then his predecessor” while Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow noted that Trump, not Obama, took the “concrete step” of “actually providing Ukraine with lethal weapons, including javelin missiles.”

Facts First: This is true, the Trump administration did provide lethal aide to Ukraine while the Obama administration did not. President Barack Obama was criticized for his refusal to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine — though it did provide more than $100 million in security assistance, as well as defense and military equipment.

By March 2015, the US had committed more than $120 million in security assistance for Ukraine and had pledged an additional $75 million worth of equipment including UAVs, counter-mortar radars, night vision devices and medical supplies and armored Humvees according to the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

While it never provided lethal aid, some of the items that the Obama administration did provide were seen as critical to Ukraine’s military. Part of the $250 million assistance package that the Trump administration announced (then froze and later unfroze) included many of the same items that were provided under Obama, including medical equipment, night vision gear and counter-artillery radar.

The Trump administration, however, did approve the provision of arms to Ukraine, including sniper rifles, rocket launchers and Javelin anti-tank missiles, something long sought by Kiev.

Legal team’s defense of Trump raised factual questions

Did Trump really care about corruption in Ukraine?

A centerpiece of President Trump’s defense is that he was doing his job by asking Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden — because he was actually pressing Ukraine to crack down on corruption. Purpura said Saturday, “When it comes to sending US taxpayer money overseas, the President is focused on burden-sharing and corruption.”

Facts First: Purpura is accurately describing the corruption situation in Ukraine, as described by many witnesses. But his other claims — that Trump sincerely cared about corruption and was acting in good faith to root it out — don’t hold up.

Full fact check here.

Were European countries not contributing anything to Ukraine?

The President has repeatedly claimed one of the reasons he withheld security assistance to Ukraine was to get other countries to contribute. In defense of the President, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone repeated false claims Trump has made about contributions from European countries to Ukraine, claiming that German Chancellor Angela Merkel “talks Ukraine but she doesn’t do anything. A lot of European countries are the same way.”

Facts First: Germany and France have both sent millions of euros to Ukraine, along with other European nations.

Full fact check here.

Was Trump locked out from participating in House impeachment proceedings?

In his attempt to discredit the impeachment process run by House Democrats, Cipollone again falsely suggested that the President’s team wasn’t allowed to participate. “If you were really confident in your position on the facts, why would you lock everybody out of it from the President’s side? Why would you do that?” Cipollone said.

Facts first: This is false. House Democrats made a formal offer to the White House to have a lawyer present during their proceedings, but the offer was rejected in a politically-tinged letter from Cipollone himself. And Republicans were permitted to participate in closed-door deposition of witnesses during the investigation phase. Republican lawyers were also allowed to question witnesses during the House hearings.

Full fact check here.

Did Schiff make up the contents of Trump’s call with Zelensky?

Moments into Trump’s defense team’s opening arguments, Purpura played a clip of Rep. Adam Schiff talking about the transcript of the July 25 call between President Trump and Ukraine’s president. After playing a clip of Schiff’s comments, Purpura said, “That’s fake. That’s not the real call. That’s not the evidence here.

Facts First: It’s true that Schiff gave a dramatized presentation of Trump’s call with Zelensky. But Schiff clearly said beforehand that he was giving a dramatic reading, and never claimed that his version was the truth version of the call. Nonetheless, Trump has used this debacle to hammer away at Schiff and accuse him of “fraud.”

Full fact check here.

If the Senate votes to convict Trump, does it automatically disqualify him from holding public office?

Cipollone alleged that Democrats are asking Americans to “remove President Trump from the ballot” in the 2020 election and “tear up all of the ballots.”

Facts First: If the Senate does vote to convict Trump, it does not automatically disqualify him from holding future public office. It would take an additional vote on that specific question to bar him from ever holding public office. Democrats however have said that Trump’s actions do warrant disqualification.

Full fact check here.

Was the whistleblower biased?

President Trump’s lawyer Patrick Philbin cherry-picked accusations of political bias against the Ukraine whistleblower today during the impeachment trial. “The whistleblower, we know, from a letter that the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community sent, that he thought that the whistleblower had political bias,” Philbin said Saturday morning on the Senate floor.

Facts First: That’s not the full story. Philbin picked the part that helps the President but ignored other relevant facts.

Full fact check here.

Does Trump have a strong record on confronting Russia?

Addressing Trump’s relationship with Russia, Cipollone said “President Trump has a strong record on confronting Russia.”

Facts First: The Trump administration has taken some steps to get tough on Russia, like sanctioning prominent oligarchs and sending anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. But these actions have been repeatedly undercut or undermined by President Trump’s public comments, or other actions he’s personally taken.

Full fact check here.

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